Four Trail Strategies to Transform a Bad Day at Work

My first thought when I hit the trail this morning was that my exhausting week had made me a worse runner and I wasn’t going to be ready for the Grand Canyon. I spiraled for a minute or two, then started focusing on turning things around.

When, like the children’s book character Alexander, you’re having a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day at work, how do you turn things around? In this episode, Peter shares four strategies he used to do just that on what started out as a really tough trail run, strategies that are just as powerful at work.

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Episode transcription

Peter Green

Today on my weekly long run, I was having a bad day. I suspected that might be the case when I got up this morning. The past week has been pretty rough, with late nights and early mornings and poor nutrition and stress. And that rarely leads to feeling great on a long run in the mountains.

But I’m training for a big run this fall, 45 miles through the Grand Canyon, and skipping didn’t feel like an option. So off I went, and almost immediately, I felt terrible.

What do you do when your current circumstances have you functioning well below your normal capability? As I slogged through my 7.5 miles this morning, I thought of four things that helped that bad run be less bad, and in this episode, I’ll share those with you. Because those are lessons that have worked for me when I’m having a bad day at work, not just on the trails–when I’ve got to be at my very best for a big meeting, or I’m giving a big presentation, or I’m having a crucial conversation. But first,

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My first thought when I hit the trail this morning was that my energy depleting week had made me a worse runner, and I wasn’t going to be ready for the Grand Canyon. I spiraled on that thought for a minute or two there. And I considered bailing on the planned run and maybe doing a much shorter one.

But then I remembered a distinction that I first heard from our good friend Jake Calabrese. Jake explained to me that there is a difference between capability and capacity. Capability is our steady state, average capability, what we’ve developed over many years of hard work. And then, on any given day, faced with specific circumstances, our capacity might be lower than our capability.

That was definitely the case for me this morning. My capability hadn’t dropped during the week, my capacity had. There’s good evidence that a week or two off doesn’t decrease cardiovascular or muscular capability. String together two or three weeks in a row and it might start to decrease, but I was far from that situation. And the same is true for our leadership capability. At our best, maybe we can tackle that harsh comment, or have that difficult conversation, or make the right choice in the face of uncertainty. But maybe, today, our capacity is diminished. That’s not our new identity, as a leader, it’s a temporary state.

So that was helpful to remember, and it reduced my stress almost immediately. I was going to be ok. And as soon as the worry stopped, I was able to adjust my goal for the day. Rather than try to set a Personal Best or try to push myself for more distance, more elevation, or a faster pace, I decided to focus on good form and keeping my heart rate down. Those were things that were within my control, given my capacity today. And as soon as I decided to do that, I started to enjoy the run a little bit.

It reminded me about something we teach related to good story telling. If you’re telling a story, there has to be some tension to get the listener engaged. And the way you create tension is to make sure the story focuses on what’s at stake for the main character. The higher the stakes, the higher the tension. When our capacity is low on a given day, we can amp up the stakes by saying “I’ve got to perform, or else…” and then the tension rises right along with it. Change the stakes, and the tension melts away, freeing us up to think more creatively about our options. So, tool number two, for my long run today, is to reduce the stakes to drop the tension and get into a more creative state of mind.

As I clicked through my first mile with my new goal, I started to feel a little bit better. I glanced down at my watch and realized I was moving at a pretty decent pace with a nice low heart rate, and that reminded me of something I’ve heard an experienced runner say once, which is; “The first mile can lie to you.” Many times, we get off to a rough start, but then our training kicks in, we get into a bit of a flow state, and then we’re good from there out. Deciding the run is going to be terrible because of a bad start makes it very unlikely for us to turn it around. How many meetings or conversations are this way too? Maybe we stumble a little bit at the beginning, we get flustered, stress ramps up, and now our capacity is even further reduced! Stepping back and remembering that the first mile can lie to you helps us zoom out and remember the bigger perspective: there’s a long way still to go, and things can still turn around.

Finally, as I was turning the corner on the last mile of the run, I passed a couple coming the other direction who must have been in their 80s. They were both hiking along at a nice slow pace with their hiking poles, and they both had HUGE smiles on their faces, just happy to be out in the beauty of the Sonoran Desert in springtime. This was a great reminder to me that no matter what our circumstances, whether that’s a hard run, a rough conversation at work, a challenge at home or with a friend, focusing on the beauty of the journey can change our whole experience.

Remembering that our Capacity is different from our Capability, that we can change the stakes to reduce the tension, that the first mile can lie to you, and to look around and enjoy the view helped me make a no-good slog of a run pretty enjoyable. Using the same tools when we’re having a bad day at work can do the same. It’s definitely better than knuckling down and pushing harder when our capacity is already low. What have you found works for you when you’re having one of those days? Share in the comments, and thanks for tuning in!

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